Fables attempt to communicate truths, often using analogies from the natural world. Image: Shutterstock

Friday 30th October 2015

Absolutely Fabulous

What are fables – and shouldn't HR have its own?

Your office may already contain its fair share of people who cry wolf, lay golden eggs, or spend all day in bed wearing a gingham dress. (“Oh my! What a long list of personality defects you have!” “All the better to undermine you with.”)

But what is a fable, exactly? There’s plenty of chatter about the value of storytelling at the moment. Does anything set fables apart?

Well for one thing, fables have pedigree — they are one of the oldest types of story in the world, stretching back to Ancient Greece and Egypt, and probably even earlier in African culture.

What defines them is that they are short and usually contain anthropomorphised animals. But most importantly, they carry a strong moral message.

They are perfectly designed to be passed on by oral tradition, which makes them more memorable and enduring to the average person.

Business has made good use of fables already. You may already have heard of some of the more famous business fables out there: Who Moved My Cheese?, The Pig and the Chicken, Gung Ho! and a multitude of other dubiously named stories. (Whale Done? Really?)

But where are the HR fables? Oh sure, we can crib some of the more generic stories that apply vaguely across management. But doesn’t HR deserve a few of its own?

HR should already be a hotbed of fable generating situations — not to mention we’re privy to a whole heap of ethical dilemmas that could do with cute animal filled stories to solve.

Fabulous fables

But seriously, there are advantages to be found with fables that regular storytelling techniques often fail to deliver.

  1. Ease of communication

Because they are often short, they can be shared speedily in a short presentation. They can also be spread by word of mouth. The moral message within often becomes wrapped up in the name – so if somebody warns you about “The Hare and the Tortoise”, you probably already know what they’re talking about.

  1. Memorability

Fables tend to stay with you longer than details of longer, more complex stories. Their simplicity and the use of animals acts as an aide memoire. Even if the details surrounding the story fade away, the moral message behind the story stays — and that’s probably the key part anyway.

  1. Flexible

Not every organisation has an uplifting backstory to tell. However, since fables are clearly set apart from the real world, there are no constraints in using them to your benefit wherever you are.

  1. Fun

Let’s face it: when somebody offers to either tell you a fable or a serious cautionary tale about an actuarial company that made some poor business decisions, it’s obvious which one you want to hear. Fables just press some primordial buttons for us.


But that’s enough talking them up. How about a few examples?

We went and found a couple of HR fables, especially for you:

The Lion and the Ant

Every day, a small Ant arrived early to work. She produced a lot and she was happy. The boss, a Lion, was surprised to see that the Ant was working so well without supervision. He thought if the Ant could produce so much without supervision, wouldn’t she produce more if she had a supervisor!

So the Lion recruited a Cockroach who had extensive experience as a supervisor and was famous for writing excellent reports. The Cockroach’s first decision was to set up an attendance system. He also needed a secretary to help him write reports and a Spider to manage the archives and monitor all phone calls.

The Lion was delighted with the Cockroach’s report and asked him to produce graphs so that he could use them for presentations at board meetings.

So the Cockroach had to buy a new computer and a laser printer and recruit a Fly to manage the IT department. The Ant, who had been once so productive and relaxed, hated this new plethora of paperwork and meetings which used up most of her time.

The Lion came to the conclusion that it was high time that the Ant’s department had more direction. So the Lion recruited a Cicada to be a manager whose first decision was to buy a carpet and an ergonomic chair for his office. The Cicada also needed a computer and a personal assistant, who he had brought from his previous department to help him prepare a work and budget control strategic optimisation plan.

The department where the Ant works is now a sad place. Productivity is down and the old atmosphere is gone. The Cicada convinced the Lion to start a climatic study of the environment.

The Lion recruited an Owl, a prestigious and renowned consultant, to carry out an audit and suggest solutions. The Owl spent three months in the department and came out with an enormous report, in several volumes that simply concluded: “The department is overstaffed.”

Guess who the Lion fired first? Of course, the Ant: ‘because she shows lack of motivation and has a negative attitude.’

Moral: Don’t mess with a good formula. Or staff your organisation with insects. Maybe both.

The Pig and the Horse

There was once a Farmer who ran a small farm. On the farm were many kinds of animal, but his favourite of all was his prized Horse.

However one day, the Horse fell ill. Worried, the Farmer called a Veterinarian who prescribed medicine, but warned the Farmer that if in three days the Horse showed no improvement, he would have to be put down.

On the first day, the Horse showed no improvement. In the next field, a Pig who had heard the conversation between the Farmer and the Vet, warned the Horse to stay strong because otherwise he would be put to sleep.

On the second day, the Horse still showed no improvement. The Pig urged the Horse to get up, but it was still no use.

On the third day, the Farmer came to the field and saw the Horse still lying there. The Pig told the Horse even more urgently to get up, and that it was now or never. He nudged the Horse and kept badgering him, but still he didn’t move.

The Farmer turned away sadly and went to call the Vet. But as he was on the phone, the Pig’s constant encouragement finally got through, and the Horse stood up and began to run around.

The Horse thanked the Pig: “Without your help, I don’t think I would have ever been able to get up. You’re a lifesaver.”

Meanwhile, the Farmer, who was watching the Horse while on the phone exclaimed to the Vet:

“It’s a miracle! I thought he was done for, but I’ve just seen him get up and run again. It’s all thanks to your medicine. I insist you come over for dinner tonight — we’ll have a ham roast to celebrate!”

Moral: The true root of success is often hard to discover, so be wary of who you recognise.

About the author

Jerome Langford

Jerome is a graduate in Philosophy from St Andrews, who alternately spends time writing about HR and staring wistfully out of windows, thinking about life’s bigger questions: Why are we here? How much lunch is too much lunch? What do you mean exactly by ‘final warning’?